[Stono] River, S. C,
MY DEAR SIR:
I went yesterday morning to Charleston Harbor to deliver to Admiral Dupont the despatches with which the Navy Department had charged me. I found the Admiral on board the “Ironsides,” which, with the rest of the Monitor fleet, was lying inside the bar, at the point where they had anchored after the engagement of Tuesday. I delivered my despatches, and, while he was reading them, I had some conversation with Capt. Rodgers, fleet captain of the [South Atlantic Blockade] Squadron. He said that although the attack had been unsuccessful and the failure would of course produce a most unhappy effect upon the country, which had so far trusted implicitly in the invincibility of the Monitors, all the officers of the Navy, without exception, united in the belief that what they had attempted was impossible, and that we had reason for congratulation that what is merely a failure had not been converted into a terrible disaster. The matter has now been fairly tried. With favoring circumstances, with good officers, with good management, the experiment has completely failed. We sailed into the harbor not sanguine of victory. We fought only about forty minutes, and the unanimous conclusion of the officers of the Navy is that an hour of that fire would have destroyed us. We had reached and touched the obstructions. To have remained there long enough to have removed them would have ensured the destruction of some of the vessels. If the others had gone by the fort they would still have been the target of the encircling batteries. There was no sufficient land force to have taken possession of the city. There was no means of supplying them with ammunition and provision, for no wooden ship could live ten minutes in that fire. The only issue would have been the capture of the surviving and the raising of the sunken vessels. This would have lost us the command of the coast, an irremediable disaster. So the Admiral took the responsibility of avoiding the greater evil by saving the fleet, and abandoning an enterprise which we think has been fairly proved impossible.
The Admiral, who. had been listening and assenting to the latter portion of what Rodgers had been saying, added: — “And as if we were to have a visible sign that an Almighty hand was over us for our good, the orders you have given me show how vast was the importance of my preserving this fleet, whose power and prestige are still great and valuable, for the work which I agree with the President in thinking most momentous, the opening of the control of the Mississippi River. After a fight of forty minutes we had lost the use of seven guns. I might have pushed some of the vessels past Fort Sumter, but in that case we ran the enormous risk of giving them to the enemy, and thus losing the control of the coast. I could not answer for that to my conscience.”
The perfect approval of their own consciences which these officers evidently felt, did not prevent their feeling the deepest grief and sorrow for the unhappy results of the enterprise. Their whole conversation was as solemn as a scene of death. At one time I spoke of the estimation in which they were held by the government and the country, which, in my opinion, rendered it impossible that blame should be attached to them, and their eyes suddenly filled with tears. A first repulse is a terrible thing to brave and conscientious men accustomed only to victory.
I was several times struck by the identity of opinion and sentiment between Admiral Dupont and yourself. You had repeatedly uttered, during my last week in Washington, predictions which have become history.
When I left the harbor, they were preparing the torpedo raft for the destruction of the sunken Keokuk.
I have taken the liberty of writing thus at length, as I thought you should know the sentiments of these experienced officers in regard to this unfortunate matter. I hope, however, the news may be received that due honor may be given to those who fought with such bravery and discretion the losing fight.
Yours very respectfully,
SOURCES: Clara B. Hay, Letters of John Hay and Extracts from Diary, Volume 1, p. 75-8; Michael Burlingame, Editor, At Lincoln’s Side: John Hay’s Civil War Correspondence and Selected Writings, p. 34-6 where the entire letter appears.